Why Does Taiwan’s Development in the Past Century Matter?

Written by Peter C.Y. Chow.

Image credit: IMG2581 by 毛貓大少爺/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

By the end of the 20th century, most former colonies had become independent though few qualify as modern states. Taiwan is an exceptional case in modern development history. Although still a Japanese colony until WWII, Taiwan became a modernised country with remarkable achievements in socio-political and economic developments by the end of the 20th century. Its unique development trajectory is worthy of in-depth analysis such that other developing countries can share its experience in the struggle for modernisation. 

The 1920s were a turning point in Taiwan’s history, with two important precursors for future development. The first was the petition for establishing the Taiwan Parliament under Japanese colonial rule; the second was the creation of the Taiwan Cultural Association for social and cultural development. Both movements were arguably inspired by the self-determination principles of US President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and the Taishō democracy (1912-26) in the Japanese empire. Although these actions resulted in limited changes, this ‘enlightenment movement’ was widespread throughout Taiwan.

From a political governance standpoint, Taiwan shifted from a colony of the Japanese empire (1895-1945) to an authoritarian regime under Martial Law (1949-87) led by the Kuomintang, then to a vibrant multi-party democracy with due process of government turnover without bloodshed. Economically, Taiwan grew from an agrarian economy with low income per capita to a newly industrialised country with higher per capita based on purchasing power parity compared to Japan and many other OECD countries. From an agrarian economy dominated by rice and sugar as export crops, Taiwan today is now a high-tech hub providing more than 90% of the world’s advanced logic microchips – a key ingredient not only for consumer electronics, smartphones, and automobiles but also military use such as supersonic missiles and F-35 jets. From a societal perspective, Taiwan’s high economic growth is even more remarkable given the limited compromise to social equity. In fact, its income distribution, measured by the Gini coefficient, is even more equitable than that in socialist China. Taiwan now boasts a vibrant and progressive society with greater ethnic and gender equality than most western industrialised countries. It is the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in Asia.

The Taiwan ‘miracle’ comprises beyond what the World Bank can address in its metrics. Despite my research focus on economic development, I humbly recognise that development is a multidimensional phenomenon with measures far beyond the increase of income per capita. In fact, a thorough understanding of development in any country requires a deep interdisciplinary examination. Those seeking to study development at a societal level must venture beyond conventional econometric models and quantitative computation of statistical data, which typically ignore the economy’s socio-political infrastructures.

As Professor Masahiro Wakabayashi wrote in the preface of this book, “studying the specific ‘origin’ of the area, such as looking into ‘(the unique) origins of Taiwan,’ is one of the essential ways of conducting Taiwan studies.” For this reason as well as personal nostalgia for my homeland, I have thus decided to edit this book on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the enlightenment movement by inviting a group of distinguished scholars in all disciplines of Taiwan studies to contribute to this volume.

This book has four sections to address the political, economic, social and educational, as well as cultural and literary developments in the past century. After the introductory chapter, the second section deals with the Taiwanese identity, political development, and international relations. Readers can understand how Taiwan’s dynamic nationalism led to domestic political development and unique international status. The third section addresses economic development in Taiwan since the 1920s. Most literature on Taiwan’s economy has focused on the post-war economic miracle without examination of socioeconomic infrastructures in the pre-war period. These chapters offer a detailed analysis of Taiwan’s pre-war development and how it transformed from a follower of industrialisation to an innovator of the high-tech industry. One chapter specifically focuses on how Taiwan even had its paper currency in the late 19th century to reflect the identity of Taiwan and even maintained it under Japanese occupation.

The fourth section covers the development of civil society. It offers a comprehensive analysis of historical movements, the evolution of curriculum at public schools and the emerging national identity, as well as women’s education, employment, and political participation. The last section discusses literary and cultural developments. It includes a chapter on the rise and fall of Taiwanese culture and the new theatre scene from the 1920s to 1960s, modern literature that bridged Asia and China to the world, the unique style of Taiwanese opera distinct from Peking Opera, and a reflection of self-consciousness of Taiwan’s cultural movement since the 1920s. These four authors offer new contributions to the existing literature on Taiwan Studies.

Taiwan’s development in the past century provides a compelling case for a comparative development study. Due to practical constraints, many recent achievements, such as Taiwan’s tactics to control COVID-19 and its role in the global semiconductor supply chain, are regretfully not captured. Nevertheless, we hope this book will serve as an interesting source of in-depth analysis of Taiwan’s unique path of development and achievements in the past century. May it inspire and sustain many future scholars in modern Taiwan Studies and students of comparative development and modernisation.

Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics, argued that “freedom” is the means as well as the ends of development. In the long-term development process, Taiwanese people struggled to achieve their aspired political and socioeconomic freedom with remarkable success. Its experience since the past century needs to be carefully evaluated, and its success story needs to be widely recognised as a role model for many developing countries. From a broader perspective, this book can serve as a sourcebook for those serious about studying world development.  

Peter C.Y. Chow is a professor of economics at the City University of New York. His field is international economics and economic development. He has taught economic development for doctoral students at the CUNY Graduate Center and international economics for MA students at City College since 1986. In addition, he was a visiting professor at the Academic Sinica, Nagoya National University, and National Taiwan University. He published more than 60 papers in refereed articles and chapters of books. In addition, he served as a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a contractual consultant at the World Bank. During 1998-2021, he served as the Executive Director of the American Association for Chinese Studies. Recently, he edited a book on “Taiwan Century’s Development: From Colony to Modern State” (Edward Elgar, Inc., 2022). Among his 12 books, the book “The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Path to Free Trade in the Asia Pacific” (Edward Elgar Inc., 2016) probably is the most relevant book to this conference.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “A Century of Development in Taiwan.”

Welcome to join the online book launch of “A Century of Development in Taiwan: From Colony to Modern State” on 14 March, 14:30-16:00 GMT, eventbrite registration link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/a-century-of-development-in-taiwan-from-colony-to-modern-state-tickets-486785286897.

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